You Will Leave This Place Behind

Zanskar, 1921

Your body will be placed on a large flat rock,
High on a ridge in the mountains.
The carrion birds are circling,
Great wings block the sun,
Great shadows scan the ground.

When the vultures have eaten all of your flesh and departed,
Your bones will be smashed.
Mixed with barley flour, butter, milk, and tea.
This will feed the lesser birds,
That have been waiting.

Some say this is necessity.
In the high Himalaya no trees grow,
You cannot be burned.
The ground is hard and full of rock,
You cannot be buried.

It does not matter if it is necessity.
The sky burial is generous.
It teaches impermanence and compassion,
As your death provides sustenance,
To living beings.

Salmon River, 1887

Your face will be painted red.
You will be given new clothes.
Buried in a dirt mound that is covered in grass.

The woman and children wail,
The warriors are silent,
Your loved ones cut their hair short.

Your horse is killed,
Buried close.
For your journey.

Kohala, 1834

Your organs are removed,
Your body filled with salt.

You are to be preserved,
For your bones have much power.

Bound in the fetal position,
A rope around the legs, over the neck.

Your body is then wrapped in kapa cloth,
Placed in a cave near the ocean.

You rest for eternity,
The waves beat the rhythm.

Florida Coast, 2015

You could be burned,
Your ashes mixed with a concrete ball.

Put into the ocean,
You will settle on the bottom.

You could become part of a reef,
Helping to repair damage made by your species.

Covered in coral, returned to nature,
Creating a new underwater ecosystem.

Fianarantsoa, 2012

Every five years or so,
Your family will turn your bones.
Your spirit appears in a dream,
They take you from the family tomb,
Remove the old cloth that shrouded you,
Rewrap you in fresh silks,
They hold you aloft in their arms,
Music is played,
You all dance together,
Your whole family is here,
Traveled here for you,
This is a celebration.
A reunion.
Only joy is allowed here.
Before sunset your family returns you to the tomb,
They place your bones upside down,
Waiting for the next dance.
You are between the world of the living and God.
You will remain on Earth until you have fully decomposed.
Then your spirit can go,
To the world of the ancestors.

Vestfold, 834 AD

You will be buried straight away,
So your soul will not wander.

For the thrall, the slave,
A hole in the ground.
Or sacrificed at the masters death.

For the person of standing,
The great warrior, the chief, priestess, priest, artisan,
The ship.

You will be placed in a great ship, wood or stone.
Offerings and gifts will be placed at your feet.
A slave will be sacrificed and buried with you,
To serve you in death.

Your ship, buried.
Stones and Earth.

A great mound will remain,
A monument of your standing for your descendants.

Varanasi, 1965

You have been washed.
Wrapped in fine white cloth.
You are carried down the steps of Manikarnika Ghat.
To the banks of the Ganga River.
You are placed on a stack of wood by the handlers of the dead.
The body they place on it, like the universe, is transitory.
The wood is set aflame.
Lit from a fire that has been burning for five thousand years.
The parts of you that do not burn will go into the Ganga.
Burned here, in this place, you will not come back.
Your soul is liberated.
Released from Samsara.
Released from our cycle of death and rebirth.

New Orleans, 2002

Your coffin is carried through the streets,
By your family and friends.
A brass band marches ahead.
The music they play is melancholy,
Slow, a dirge.
Your people mourn their loss.
Your coffin is entombed,
Your body cut loose,
The final goodbye.
The music picks up tempo,
Slowly at first then faster,
Up beat, faster still,
Instruments gleam down the street,
Fingers press faces sweat,
The Second Line,
Dressed to the nines,
Dancing that ecstatic dance,
The time for mourning is over,
The time to celebrate life has begun,
Your life.
All life.

Albany, 1979

Your soul has gone.
But its former home is treated with care.
Your blood is replaced with embalming fluid.
To delay decomposition.
Allowing your family time to come see your body.
Your face is made up and you are dressed in nice clothes.
You are presented to your friends and family.
Laying in a wooden or metal box.
People speak about your life, your character.
Someone sings a song or plays one on an instrument.
Your box is carried outside and you are conveyed, by car, to a cemetery.
There, you are lowered into a hole in the ground and covered with earth.
Surrounded by others like you, until you are resurrected by God.
The years of your life etched into a stone placed at the head of your hole.
Everybody wears black.

Nile River, 1210 BC

You must be mummified,
So your soul can find your body.
And you can become one again,
In the afterlife.

A sharp object is thrust into your brain through your nostril.
The brain is liquified and drained out.
Your organs are removed, placed in jars.

Your heart stays in your body, for that is part of your soul.
You must take it with you to the Duat, the underworld,
To weigh against the feather of Ma’at.
If the heart is lighter, virtuous, you go to paradise in the Place of Reeds.
If heavy, devoured, and you are left to wander.

The poor get the sand,
Buried in the fetal position,
The desert preserving them.

The king gets the pyramid.
The body washed in wine,
Stuffed with preserving bags of soda ash.
Bathed in oil and covered in gold resin,
Wrapped in bandages,
Draped in amulets, incense smoke, prayers.

Placed in a golden coffin,
Moved inside the pyramid,
With gold and jewels and food and drink,
To use in the afterlife.

The pyramid is closed.
The king is now a god.
Celebrated outside a pyramid.
That can never be opened again.

Tel Aviv, 1999

Your body is purified.
Covered in the thin Tachrichim,
So you can go back to the ashes you came from.
Blocks will be placed on top of your body.
You are buried in the earth.
A member of your family recites the Kaddish.
A Rebbe recites El Male Rachamim.
After your ceremony a meal is served and consumed.
Attendees wash their hands three times,
Before they leave the cemetery,
To purify themselves from the dead,
To purify themselves from you.

Busan, 2016

In a country so densely populated as this,
There is no more room to bury the dead.

So you will be burned,
Your ashes impacted and compressed.

Into beads.
Simple round beads.

Not to be strung together and worn.
Rather displayed in a container of glass.

They will look at the beads in the glass box on the table.
And remember you.

Sheffield, 2018

Branches of the willow tree are pliant but strong,
They take root easily, eager to live.

These branches, woven together,
Will form your coffin.

You will be buried underground, beside a tree.
Inside your branch coffin, you will decay quickly.

Everything combining, growing together,
Roots and Earth, cradling your bones.

Accra, 1983

When you die you will become very powerful,
You will be able to affect the lives of your living family,
They will want to get on your good side.

So they will have a coffin made for you.
The artist will build it with simple hand tools,
Using wood from local trees.

It will be fantastic.

The design could reflect your profession:
A hammer.
A car.

Or your essence:
A great lion.
A globe.
Or a fish.
Maybe a radio.
A pack of cigarettes.
A book.

Whatever it will be,
It will take weeks to build,
Days to paint,
Seen only on one day,
Before you and it are buried.

You are on your way.
Death is not the end.


Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Barry Biechner

Barry Biechner is a poet whose work has appeared in CIRQUE and Apeiron Review. He pays the bills as a river guide in Idaho.